This section contains 7,427 words
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Interview by Henry Roth with David Bronsen
SOURCE: "A Conversation with Henry Roth," in Partisan Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, 1967, pp. 265-80.
In the following interview, Roth discusses his life and his relationship to writing and creative life.
[Bronsen:] I visited Henry Roth on his Farm near Augusta, Maine, and we began to talk. At one point I remarked that he had never lost his command of language. He replied: "That comes from having talked with myself for twenty-five years."
[Roth:] It's too bad I was not older when I was brought to America, so that I could recall the Old World and the original home of my mother and father. I was born in Tysmenitsa, near Lemberg, Galicia, in 1906, and was only eighteen months old when my mother brought me to this country.
My father had gone to New York and saved up enough money to bring my mother and me over in steerage. This is the material I used in the prologue of Call It Sleep. Since there was no birth certificate, there was some doubt about my age. My father said I was two and a half years old when I came, but my mother maintained I was a year younger. As proof she used to point out that my sister, who was conceived in America, was two years younger than I am, so I imagine that her version of my age is correct.
My parents settled down in Brownsville at first, which corresponds to certain passages of the novel. Two years later we moved to Ninth Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. When we lived there in the years 1910 to 1914, the East Side represented a very secure enclave. Everyone in our building was Jewish, as were the neighbors to either side of us and the people across the street. Had I thought of it in those terms back them, I would have said that I was surrounded by a homogeneous environment and that I completely identified with it. In that atmosphere of devoutness and orthodoxy it would not have occurred to anyone to question the dietary regulations or the observance of holiday rituals. Those were the years when the huge influx of Eastern Jewish immigration was building the area up. The East Side was helpful, communicative and highly interrelated—in short, a community. It was a place with the promise of opportunities and new horizons, where one could make a new start in life. And the Jew in those years was optimistic and dynamic, full of the feeling that nothing was holding him back.
We lived in Ninth Street till I was eight years old, and then in the summer of 1914 we moved to Harlem. My mother's parents, along with several uncles and aunts, were brought over just before the outbreak of the First World War and settled by my maternal uncle in a steam-heated, hot-water apartment in Harlem. My mother wanted to be near her parents, which accounted for our moving there too. The move turned out to be crucial for me.
We settled at 108 East 119th Street, near the trestle of the New York-New Haven Railroad. This part of the neighborhood, squeezed in between Little Italy to the east and the more prosperous and predominately Jewish area to the west, was considered the poorer part of Harlem. It was a mixture of Irish, Italians and Jews, and a rough mixture. I was taken from a neighborhood that had been home for me and put in a highly hostile environment. That produced a shock from which I have perhaps never recovered. Until then I had had a natural love of activity and enjoyed the companionship of other children. I had been a good student in school as well as in cheder. After the move to Harlem all that changed and I took to avoiding outside contact by staying in the house and near Mama as much as possible, so that I grew fat with the lack of activity. In fact, that is what the children used to call me—"fatty." For weeks I cried and had tantrums, begging to be taken back to Ninth Street. But no one paid any attention to me, nor was there any concern when I received C's for the first time on my report card. I got into fights at the new school for a while, but I soon learned to avoid any provocation. I retreated into myself and stayed out of people's way. Serious psychological damage had been brought about by this uprooting of a naturally conservative child, and it expressed itself after a while in my rejection of Jewish faith and customs, which until then had been a part of me. I felt no anguish over this at the time—I was throwing it all to the winds. My mother, who was the only source of security, did not understand what was going on, although I suppose her example was also influencing my behavior. She herself was reacting against the fanatical orthodoxy of her father, which had oppressed her as a child and a young woman. If her faith had not been tongue in cheek I might have been insulated against the influences of Harlem. But she did not seem to care if I became a Goy or not, and damn it, I became a Goy!
My father was also not particularly orthodox, he merely went through the motions. He did not fail to celebrate Seder and observe Yom Kippur, but at the core true devoutness no longer existed. My father had a pat phrase that he appended to every reference to God, which he continues to use till this day: "op si doh a Gott"—"if there is a God."
Looking at it in another way, I suppose my parents went through some of the same dislocation by coming to America that I experienced by moving to Harlem. That kind of change is much more of a trauma for the Eastern Jew than for the Westerner. The Jew coming out of his little Eastern European hamlet, with its insularity and stagnation, is likely to undergo a radical transformation when he gets caught up in the tumult and perpetual change of American life.
In any case, the move in 1914, the Goyish environment and the negative example of my parents threw me into a state of turmoil. I had gone to Harlem with a pronounced Jewish bent and proceeded to take on the conflicting characteristics of my new surroundings. It was as if two valences of the same element were at odds with one another; at the time, of course, I could not intellectualize about the contradictions involved, but I did feel them emotionally, and my response took the form of rebelling against Judaism. I fought as hard as I could against going through with the Bar Mitzvah, even though my parents insisted on it and finally had their way. But only a year later, when I was fourteen, I firmly announced that I was an atheist.
Call It Sleep is set in the East Side, but it violates the truth about what the East Side was like back then. Ninth Street was only a fragmentary model for what I was doing. In reality, I took the violent environment of Harlem—where we lived from 1914 to 1928—and projected it back onto the East Side. It became a montage of milieus, in which I was taking elements of one neighborhood and grafting them onto another. This technique must have grown out of the rage I had been living with all those fourteen years. I was alienated—to use that old hack of a word—and my novel became a picture in metaphors of what had happened to me.
All the rancorous anti-Semitism which Hitler was beginning to epitomize was not limited to Germany alone. To a lesser degree it was being felt everywhere. It may be difficult to explain how such social forces affect the individual psyche, but it is clear that they have powerful behavioral effects. My own experience of being thrown into a neighborhood where anti-Semitism was growing provides an example, and the scene in Call It Sleep in which David Schearl lamely denies his being Jewish to the gang that is threatening him is an objectification of the same thing.
The characters in the novel have a cohesion of their own, but to really understand them you have to go through the characters and back to the author to find out what was motivating and disturbing him. I needed empirical reality for the sake of its plausibility, but I took off from it on a tangent. In other words, I was working with characters, situations and events that had in part been taken from life, but which I molded to give expression to what was oppressing me. To a considerable extent I was drawing on the unconscious to give shape to remembered reality. Things which I could not fully understand but which filled me with apprehension played a critical role in determining the form of the novel. The father in the novel is a powerfully built, menacing person given to uncontrolled violence. My own father, who served as a model for this figure, was basically an impulsive little man with poor judgment, and perhaps a little unbalanced. He did not beat me often, but when he did he went crazy. Because I felt I could be overwhelmed at any time by forces that were constantly threatening me, it became necessary to change this little man into someone capable of real destruction. Violence is associated as a rule with great strength, and to the mind of a child an adult seems to be seven feet tall.
I worked with polarities in expressing the subjective reality of the little boy in the novel. I am referring to the personalities of the mother and father, as well as the characters of the mother and her sister. Actually, my own mother was the source of both of these contrasting female figures. I abstracted one side of my mother, rounded it out and created an aunt who in most respects is the antithesis of David Schearl's mother. The presence of Aunt Bertha seemed to give an aesthetic justification to the character of the mother as well.
My parents were hopelessly mismatched, and their life together was marked by furious quarreling. My mother, who felt profoundly cheated in her husband, could never bring herself to express the full force of her feelings against him until late in life, when an outbreak of paranoia tore down all her reserve. In her earlier years she turned all her attention to me. Since at that age I could hardly have any recourse to depth analysis, the Oedipal fixation that took hold of me was to keep me firmly in its grip.
I made use of a number of incidents out of my childhood experiences, but recast them in a manner that is just as revealing of the author's frame of mind and his hindsight as it is of the character of the little boy. The critical episode in the novel of thrusting the milk dipper into the car track is an example. A couple of boys had enticed me into doing that for the sake of a prank. The author turned the incident into a personal statement: the impressionable boy living in hostile surroundings adopts as his own a destructive act to which he is instigated by outsiders to whom he has no personal relationship.
After publication of Call It Sleep a number of critics pointed out what they thought were its social implications. My own feeling was that what I had written was far too private for me to have given much thought to specific social problems. My personal involvement had absorbed my entire consciousness, leaving no room to focus on anything else.
When I force myself to be objective I realize that if I had not moved to Harlem I most likely would never have written the novel. But during the anxieties and hardships of the intervening years I have told myself that I would not hesitate to sacrifice Call It Sleep for a happy childhood, adolescence and young manhood. Given the choice, I would have stayed on the East Side until I was at least eighteen years old. Then I would have gone forth.
Of course, I can see that moving to Harlem was a formative experience in its own right. It had the virtue of compelling an enlargement of vision and sympathy. I was presented at an impressionable age, when everything becomes emotionally charged, with the problem of trying to integrate in my mind a much greater diversity and many more contrasting forces than I would have known otherwise. If we had stayed on the East Side and I had gone on to write—two big ifs, because I wanted to become a biology teacher when I was a boy—it is possible that I might have written some honest portrayals of Jewish life on the East Side. Such writing would necessarily have reflected Jewish life as Jewish life, which is not the case with my novel; I do not regard Call It Sleep as primarily a novel of Jewish life. There is something positive in the writer striving for the broader awareness that enables him to interrelate many more disparate elements in an art form; such an aim, by its very nature, requires the consideration of a much wider world than the one I originally came from.
As an illustration you can take the case of Robert Frost. From my knowledge of his verse, Frost never broke through what might be called the bucolic curtain. Emotionally and ideologically he played it safe by never going out into the larger world to tes his attitudes and views. Had I stayed on the Lower East Side I also would have been spared having to submit my feelings and beliefs to a wider experience and understanding.
During the years in which I devoted myself to writing Call It Sleep I came to regard myself as a disciplined writer who could turn his hand to whatever literary task he cut out for himself. I knew that the flow of creativity would not be uniform, and I had come to expect resistance from my material, but I felt that by working at it I could resolve all the difficulties I encountered. My self-confidence approached the point of arrogance in those years. I remember in a moment of introspection reviewing in my mind the authors and literary works that I considered important and that had personally affected me. At the same time, and with a good deal of pride, I felt that I was consciously fighting literary influences and going my own way.
T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Eugene O'Neill were the writers of major stature that interested me back then. Eliot's Waste Land had a devastating effect on me, I felt stunned by the vastness of its conception. I had been introduced to the work by Eda Lou Walton, a professor of literature at New York University. It was to her that I dedicated Call It Sleep. She was a woman twelve years older than I, who was very devoted to me and who for a time supported and sponsored me. Our relationship had certain parallels to that of Thomas Wolfe and Aline Bernstein, although I do not stress the resemblance.
Some of the plays of Eugene O'Neill left a deep imprint. I went to see The Great God Brown with Eda Lou and came away feeling that I had been listening to the inner voice of a man.
I had already read Joyce as a freshman in college, and a copy of Ulysses which Eda Lou had brought me from France introduced me to an entirely new way of seeing things. I felt I could see doors swinging open on untried possibilities in literature.
But during the time I was writing the novel I was trying to establish a demarcation between myself and other authors. As far as I was concerned, no one could teach me anything and nothing was too big an undertaking.
I started writing Call It Sleep in 1929, worked on it for four years and finished it in 1933, when I was twenty-seven. A substantial part of the book was written in Maine, in the small town of Norridgewock, in 1932. I learned of a farmhouse where an elderly widow, a woman of seventy, boarded the local schoolmistress; and since this was summer and the room vacant, she agreed to take me in as a boarder. For seven dollars a week I got room and board—and was fed royally. I had nothing to do but work on my novel, which I did from June till November. It was a happy stay, and years later, when I was casting about for a place in which to settle down, it must have been the memory of those satisfying months that made me decide on Maine.
The book was published in 1934 by Ballou and Company. I paid little attention to the contract at the time and just wondered how the publisher could possibly hope for any financial return on the book in the middle of the Depression. Viewed from today's vantage point, you would think Robert Ballou had a gold mine in his possession. Meyer Levin was one of his authors and John Steinbeck, who was just getting started, was another. But his firm was having difficulties, like so many others; one publisher after another was going on the rocks and selling his writers to the more affluent survivors. Owing to Ballou's rather desperate financial straits, he was relieved when David Mandel, a lawyer, put some money in the firm. That gave Mandel a share of the business and certain rights in deciding policy. Ballou was already favorably inclined to the book, and David Mandel, who subsequently married Eda Lou Walton, submitted to her urging to have the book published.
In later years people would say to me, "You haven't written because you were not given any recognition." That is not true; for a first novel I was given a large measure of acclaim, enough to encourage any writer. And the fact is that I did write, for a time….
Even before the publication of Call It Sleep I was at work on a new book. I had met a colorful person around whom I was building my second novel. The man was a tough, second-generation German-American who had been raised on the streets of Cincinnati and relied on his fists and his physical stamina to cope with life. Being an illiterate, he had acquired almost everything he knew through his own experience. I was attracted to him because he always took pride in being able to defend himself, no matter what happened. His build and the way he carried himself made me think of a champion middleweight fighter, and as a matter of fact, he had trained with professionals. When he told me that he had never been beaten I was inclined to believe him. Then suddenly this man who had fought and brawled his way through life lost his right hand in an industrial accident. With that came the terrible shock and realization that he was no longer able to fight the world alone. His personal tragedy and the knowledge that he would have to turn to others for help were terrifying blows that hit him at the depth of the Depression and changed his whole outlook on life.
Like many intellectuals during the Depression, I had become attracted to Marxism and felt the Communist Party to be its true expression. It was as a result of my contact with the Party that I met my German acquaintance and conceived the idea of basing a novel on him. The man and what I learned about him fitted in with what I thought the Party stood for. I carefully gathered the data of his life as well as my observations concerning him, and wrote about a hundred pages of manuscript. He had become an organizer for the Party, and several times I went along with him to distribute leaflets on the waterfront, where I used the Italian I had been studying on my own to make contacts with the longshoreman. There was no CIO at that time, and the Party was espousing the cause of industrial unions on the waterfront, in the same way that Harry Bridges had been doing on the West Coast.
One day while I was accompanying him on his assignment, my "character," whose instincts for danger were better than mine, warned me, "Better stay close to me." With a hook for a hand he was still a man that no one was likely to cross. But I wandered away from him in the process of handing out the leaflets.
The aims of the Communist Party had been coming into conflict with those of the AFL, which was well entrenched among the longshoremen. I was approached by one of the business agents of the AFL, who asked me for a leaflet. When I held it out to him he belted me across the face, smashed my glasses and proceeded to beat me up, all the time driving me across the highway as he pounded away at me. By the time my friend came running towards me the incident was over, but for a man of sensibility no further lesson was needed about the animosity and antagonism that arise from a struggle over vested interests.
In the meantime, Ballou had gone bankrupt and sold Scribner's the rights to my second book. During the negotiations I had submitted the unfinished manuscript to Scribner's editor, Maxwell Perkins, who was so enthusiastic that he predicted the novel would be one of the outstanding books in contemporary American fiction. The poor man—he died without getting the rest of the manuscript. Once the contract was signed and Ballou was paid, I did not write another word. I had mapped out in detail the course I was to follow in each chapter of the book, but I seemed to have arrived at an utter mpasse.
Only after completing all the rest of Call It Sleep did I go back and write the prologue. But after doing the first hundred pages of the second book I changed directions and did the prologue as a pretext for not going on to Section II.
My second book was supposed to be a short but substantial novel, that I was going to follow with a longer one, for which I had been saving myself. This work was to be far more ambitious and of greater scope; in it I would deal with the Jewish intellectual embracing many more elements of the social world. But my second novel was not getting anywhere. For a time I made all kinds of excuses to myself, then I decided I had made a mistake by limiting my perspective to the midwestern proletarian that was turning revolutionary. I wanted the words to come flowing out of me again, and I needed a fresh start; as a physical demonstration of this recognition I burned the manuscript I had shown Perkins and set to work on the next novel. I wrote the opening chapters, which dealt with autobiographical material from Harlem, but I felt I was not reaching the mark. My notes called for bringing together a great many disparate aspects of society and weaving them into an artistic whole. More than anything else I required a sense of unity in the work I did, a unity that could almost be reduced to a metaphor. I struggled with both the style and content, getting only so far before once again running up against immobility and total frustration.
I found myself analyzing my views on progress and indulging for hours and days in mental excursions on the subject of moral righteousness. To my surprise I found myself in sympathy with the South and its myths of tradition and languorous women. I carried on debates with myself in which my intellectual judgment and my sensuous orientation were at odds with each other. Common sense told me that my principles required that I side with the more enlightened North, that my phantasies were ignoring the disadvantaged Negro and the ugliness of racism. To my horror I caught myself musing about the Nazi cult of German brotherhood, and then I would shudder when I stopped to think what they were doing to the Jews in Germany.
I suppose all this was a revulsion from the emphasis on the struggle for social justice. The intellectual decision to identify myself with the proletariat had created a crisis which brought into sharp focus my dichotomy as a human being. I knew that justice was at stake, that Jews were involved, that one had to do something about poverty. But poverty is ugly and the proletarian bored me, with the result that the sensuousness in my nature was pulling me in the opposite direction. The artist in me had never gotten over the appeal of art for art's sake, which had flourished in the twenties. With this war going on inside of me I became immobilized to the point that I found myself incapable of making a narrative decision. All this is subjective evidence that something was knocking the props out from under me, that in spite of my tremendous creative urge something was working against me, stymieing me, preventing me from doing what I desired most. My efforts to get on with the novel petered out and the whole thing gradually shriveled and withered away, until finally I destroyed that manuscript as well. I regret that now. Had I kept the autobiographical material about Harlem it might have provided me at some later time with renewed motivation.
When a writer gives up what is most vital to him, the work in which he has placed his greatest hopes and which was going to be the object of his greatest efforts, he is undercutting his creative gifts and abilities. I was through. For a long time I thought that I was afflicted by some peculiar curse. But I have come to believe that there was something deeper and less personal in my misfortune, that what had happened to me was common to a whole generation of writers in the thirties. One author after another, whether he was Gentile or Jew, stopped writing, became repetitive, ran out of anything new to say or just plain died artistically. I came to this conclusion because I simply could not believe that anyone with as much discipline, creative drive, inbred feeling for the narrative and intense will to write as I had, could, after such rigorous efforts, still be baulked.
Looking about, I saw the same phenomenon manifesting itself in practically every writer I knew. They became barren. Daniel Fuchs decided after his third novel that he would write for Hollywood. He maintained that he had arrived at his decision clearly and rationally, but I do not believe that. James Farrell is another example. He had exhausted himself by the time he had written his third novel, and everything he wrote after that consisted of variations on played-out themes. Steinbeck is not radically different, as far as his real contribution is concerned; nothing else he ever wrote came up to The Grapes of Wrath. And Edward Dahlberg—what did he write after Bottom Dogs and From Flushing to Calvary? There was Hart Crane and Leonie Adams, both of whom ran into the stone wall of noncreativity. Crane committed suicide, and Nathanael West for his part conveniently died.
I have to get a cigarette—this works me up! [Mr. Roth lit his cigarette deliberately, abruptly changed the subject and bantered for several minutes before resuming his train of thought.]
How does one explain this peculiarity? It happened often enough that I began to reflect on it, and I have continued to reflect on it ever since. I do not have the training to make a scientific or sociological analysis, but it seems to me that World War II, which was already in the making, was a dividing line between an era which was coming to an end, namely ours, and another, which was coming into being. I think that we sensed a sharp turn in historic development. How do writers sense these things? We sense it in our prolonged malaise, and in our art—in the fact that, having been fruitful writers, we suddenly grow sterile. The causes are personal, but they are also bigger than any of us. When so many people are affected in the same way and each one is groping for his own diagnosis you have to look for a broader explanation.
To those of us who were committed to the Left, the Soviet Union was the cherished homeland; but that homeland had become an establishment which was interested in consolidating itself. In the Moscow trials the establishment was destroying the revolution, although at the time we were still loudly professing our allegiance. Events often do not become comprehensible until long after they have occurred.
I am throwing out these ideas as possibilities. The scholar who some day will be making a formal study of the question will undoubtedly find other things to single out. One interesting facet he will have to investigate is the influence such historical factors exert on the artist. How do they get into the writer's bloodstream and affect his creative sensibility? How are his potentialities inhibited? The world around him after all remains largely intact, but something inside of him has changed.
In 1938, when I was despairing of ever writing again, my relationship with Eda Lou Walton deteriorated. We separated, and almost immediately afterwards I met Muriel Parker at Yaddo, an artist's colony at Saratoga Springs. The following year we were married, but the only livelihood we had came from the WPA and relief. They had me working with pick and shovel laying sewer pipes as well as repairing and maintaining streets. In 1940 I wrote "Somebody Always Grabs the Purple," a story of a boy's visit to the public library, which was published in The New Yorker. When I notified the relief agency that I had received three hundred dollars for the publication I was reclassified as being no longer indigent, and promptly removed from the rolls.
Shortly after that I obtained a steady job as a substitute teacher at a high school in the Bronx. I decided that jobs offer security, that I would have to accept the obligations and compulsions that came my way and forget I had been a writer. When I discussed this with my wife we both agreed that I would never write again. I told myself I had done so many different things in the meantime that there would be no more suffering, yet there was some hidden reservation that lingered on and continued to crop up in moments of introspection.
By 1940 Europe was at war and the American economy was speeding up. I learned that people were being trained as craftsmen to turn out the immense volume of war material that was beginning to come off the assembly lines, and the thought of a skilled trade appealed to me. Although I had given up being a writer and accepted the idea that I would have to work for a living like everybody else, I still felt that anything remotely touching on my former interest—and that included advertising as well as clerical and office work—was repugnant to me. So I gravitated to machine shop work and became a precision grinder. That entailed doing the high precision finishing work on a variety of cutting tools, dies, fixtures and jigs. The machinists who carried out the earlier parts of the operation left me only a few thousandths of an inch to take off. The ordinary machinist does not care for such slow and demanding work, but I had always been interested in mathematics, which was necessary for the required calculations, and I came to like the work. In time I was classified as A-1 on the basis of the skill I acquired.
For six years I plied that trade and regarded myself as a machinist. During those years, perhaps because it had been the scene of my frustration, I developed a distaste for New York. I wanted to get away from anything that reminded me of my past as a writer. But leaving New York is a two-fold undertaking for a New Yorker. First of all he had to decide to make the break, having always looked upon New York implicitly as the only place in which he could live. Then he has to decide where he is going. In 1945 I finally made the move and took the family to Boston.
Fifteen years passed before I was to return even briefly to New York. I discovered then that it was no longer my New York. I had been so versed in the city, I could see the little detail that spoke for the whole, and had developed an expertise in conning the place. I went back to visit Ninth Street and the East Side, the neighborhood I had known and identified with, and discovered the whole area had become Puerto Rican. The great spirit that had once vitalized that stack of bricks was gone. Nevertheless, I was moved by nostalgia the first time I went back there; perhaps there was a touch of symbolism in my "return." But now I would like to see everything there bulldozed down and some fit habitations erected. My response to prowling through Harlem was markedly different. You experience nostalgia if you are aware of a former identity which has been displaced or replaced. I never had that kind of tie to Harlem, only the feeling that I did not belong.
After working in Boston during 1945 and 1946 I decided that was not the right place for me either. I found an inexpensive farm in Maine, not the one I am living on now, but in Montville, and the price of twelve hundred dollars included the house and barn. The one-hundred-ten acre farm described a ribbon a couple of hundred yards wide and a mile long. I bought the place in March, 1946, and two months later my wife and the two boys came out here to live. After continuing work for six more months in Boston I settled down with my family in Maine.
The years that followed were occupied with making a living and supporting the family. I started out by taking a job as a teacher at a school in which eight grades were all cooped up in one room. I never learned the knack of keeping them all busy; while I was teaching the eighth grade the first and second graders would get restless. I saw myself as a juggler trying to keep up an illusion of perpetual motion.
There followed a variety of odd jobs—from putting in heating insulation to fire fighting in the woods of Maine—whatever offered a livable wage. In 1949, the same year we moved to Augusta, I went to work as an attendant at the Augusta State Hospital and later became a psychiatric aide, a position I held for four years. By then both of my boys were in school and my wife was able to start teaching. From that point on we managed fairly well, although our income never amounted to much. My wife was a wonderful sport and took the ups and downs in her stride. My own attitude was that there was no real meaning outside of writing, so it did not really matter what I did.
Time passed, it became clear that the hospital job had no future, and I turned to something new. Since we were down in a hollow near a brook, I thought the farm would be a good place to raise waterfowl. With the help of my boys that is what I did for a number of years. I used to winter forty breeders each of ducks and geese in order to have fertile eggs in the spring. Then I would incubate the eggs and peddle the ducklings and goslings. I worked up a little trade in feathers too; goose feathers are worth two dollars a pound. When my sons came home from school they ran errands and did chores. That was a happy period for me; I found it wonderful to be working with my own boys.
My life during those years revolved around the family. From time to time I used to wish I could take part in intellectual discussion, but it was pointless to attempt that with the neighbors. There was always my wife, however, and discussion was carried on at home. The area of contact between myself and the natives has been very slight, just as the over-lapping of that which is vitally important for them and myself is minimal. The result is that my family and I have lived rather retired lives, to the point where I seem no longer to miss anything in the way of larger human contact. Being a Jew has not provided fellowship either—nor has it been a problem. The Jewish population in Maine is small and I doubt that most of the people I deal with know that I am Jewish.
When my older boy got a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy and, a couple of years later, the other one went away to finish high school, my wife and I found ourselves alone. It became necessary to find something less taxing than raising waterfowl by myself, so I took to tutoring Latin and math.
In the summer of 1959 Harold Ribalow, a critic of American-Jewish literature, came out here to talk with me about Call It Sleep and its possible republication. That was the first time it occurred to me that anyone might be interested in bringing out the book. I felt that from a business standpoint it would be a foolish venture and would not do any better than it had the first time. I was gratified, however, and hoped that it would result in some needed income. Ribalow pointed out that my copyright was approaching the expiration date, after which the book would become public domain. My obliviousness to that fact shows how divorced I was from literature and writing. As a result of Ribalow's interest the book was brought out by Cooper Square Publishers in 1960, and then in 1964, thirty years after the first publication, it came out as a paperback with Avon Books. After all those years of being out of print the book had become accessible again.
What I had perhaps overlooked is that one grows old and that a book like Call It Sleep can gain a certain value as an antiquity. At least I was still alive to see the revival of interest in the novel. I am sure that moving to Maine with its much slower pace of life, giving up the consuming attempt to keep writing at all costs, and the devotion of a steady and sensible wife account for my being alive today. Otherwise the republication of the book would have been a posthumous event. But as far as literature is concerned, I am in reality no longer alive. The renewed interest in Call It Sleep is being witnessed by a dead author who still happens to be ambulatory.
But strangely enough, this dead author may be going through a resurrection. I started writing again in the summer of 1967, simultaneously with the outbreak and conclusion of the Israeli-Arab war. I was in Guadalajara, Mexico, at the time, where I had gone with my wife on the royalties of Call It Sleep, and where I followed the daily events of the war in the local newspapers with great avidity. I found myself identifying intensely with the Israelis in their military feats, which repudiated all the anti-Jewish accusations we had been living with in the Diaspora, and I was glorying in their establishment of themselves as a state through their own application and resources. An intellectual excitement seized hold of me that forced me to set down what was going through my mind, to record my thoughts about Israel and my new reservations regarding the Soviet Union. What I wrote seemed to reflect a peculiar adoption. Israel did not adopt me; I adopted my ex post facto native land. What seemed important was that I identified with Israel without being a Zionist and without having the least curiosity about Israel as a practical, political entity. Suddenly I had a place in the world and an origin. Having started to write, it seemed natural to go on from there, and I have been writing long hours every day since then. I am not yet sure what it is leading to, but it is necessary and is growing out of a new allegiance, an adhesion that comes from belonging.
I had the need for us to be warriors; I had the need for us to be peasants and farmers, for us to exercise all the callings and trades like any other people. I have become an extreme partisan of Israeli existence—for the first time I have a people. All this made me conscious of a latent conviction—that the individual per se disintegrates unless he associates himself with an institution of some sort, with a larger entity. I could not find that kind of bond in religion, and I do not think the Israelis do either. I found it in the existence of a nation. I have not been able to turn for that to America, which is presently committing the folly of destroying itself, so at least for the present I have adopted a people of my own, because they have made it possible for me to do so. And I am further indebted to Israel because I am able to write again.
If there is anything dramatic about all this, I suppose it can be explained as the way a fictioneer does things. Significant for me is that after his vast detour, the once-Orthodox Jewish boy has returned to his own Jewishness. I have reattached myself to part of what I had rejected in 1914. Even before the Israeli-Arab war I was beginning to feel that there might be some path that would lead me back to myself, although I realized there was no returning to the Jews of the East Side of more than a half century ago. Then suddenly I discovered that I could align myself with a people that is forward-looking and engaged in the vital process of its own formation. And with the resumption of writing I find that I myself am reabsorbed into something that is immediately vital. One of the little—or big—projects I have undertaken is a work dealing with the artist responding to his world.
Being a Jew in the Diaspora is basically a state of mind, an attitude of not belonging. In that sense there are also Gentiles who are Jewish. Only two courses remain open to the Jew in America: he assimilates and disappears completely, while giving the best elements of himself to his native culture—and God knows that he has a lot to give; or he goes to Israel and does the same thing there. The emergence of Israel has proved to be the greatest threat to the continued survival of the Jew of the Diaspora. I do not think the Jew in America can exist much longer with a distinct identity, although he continues to make an attempt at it. I myself do not want the Diaspora. I am sick of it. Isn't it time we became a people again? Haven't we suffered enough?
Abruptly the emotional pitch subsided, and an infinite weariness took its place, as Mr. Roth concluded, "This has taken a lot out of me. I don't think I will be giving any more interviews."
The impassioned note on which the long session had ended contrasted with the relaxed, good-natured mood which prevailed at the dinner table. Mrs. Roth had waited patiently until late evening and the conclusion of the interview, at which time this equable woman of Anglo-Saxon stock served us a superb meal consisting of well-known staples and delicacies of the Jewish cuisine. That in turn brought on reminiscences from Henry Roth about his childhood on the Lower East Side. At one point Mrs. Roth spoke of the travels abroad she and her husband have undertaken in the last few years and remarked with a touch of humor, "Henry is a poor traveler. As soon as he gets somewhere he wants to settle down for good."
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